In a tournament of 64 games, there were bound to be issues of contention, especially in a competition that carries so many national hopes with it. But the general standard of refereeing has been good throughout the tournament. Controversy over refereeing decisions at the World Cup in Brazil has been relatively small.
Despite this general standard, there have been a few contentious and high profile incidents – from Brazil’s penalty in the opening match and two goals disallowed for offside in the Mexico-Cameroon match to rumours of leniency.
The problem of flow
One of the most controversial games of the tournament from a refereeing standpoint was the foul-ridden Brazil-Colombia quarter-final. The leniency shown by the match’s Spanish official, Carlos Velasco Carballo, was criticised for not being more authoritative and encouraging behaviour that led to a tournament-ending foul on Neymar.
The injury to Brazil’s star player somewhat overshadowed the fact that Brazil committed their fair share of fouls during the match. Neymar’s injury may have been the headline incident, but the Colombian players also took a considerable amount of punishment; Brazil actually committed more fouls, 31 to Columbia’s 23, with both teams receiving two yellow cards.
So if Carballo had not allowed the game to flow, would he have been accused of ruining the spectacle of the game? This is something that happened to referee Howard Webb who officiated the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland. Webb clamped down on the behaviour of the players and therefore the game did not flow as well. The alternative was perhaps to approach the game as Carballo did for the Brazil-Colombia match. But then he’d risk letting bad behaviour escalate. This is not to excuse mistakes that referees might make, but it is a difficult task for the officials.
The cultural differences between referees and how they officiate is a significant issue to overcome at the World Cup and clearly they need further guidance on dealing with different cultures and mentalities. This understanding also extends to the players and managers. The German team stated that their hopes that the Mexican referee, Marco Rodriguez, would approach their semi-final with Brazil in a different way to how Brazil’s match with Colombia was officiated. However, FIFA stated before the tournament had even begun that the training that the referees were going through should ensure that there was no change in performance by the match officials.
There is a fine line between controlling and punishing players and allowing the match to flow. The reality is that fans, observers and footballing authorities want both. FIFA want a spectacle, they want a product that has value and for that they need exciting matches and goals; television companies want much the same because they want people to watch the games. Managers, on the other hand, want protection for their players, while also allowing them to express themselves.
The behavioural differences that exist between different leagues and countries also extends to the issue of diving, or simulation, to gain a competitive advantage over the opposition and deceive the referee. In the age of slow motion replays, it’s easy to forget the speed at which players like Arjen Robben are moving in real time when they fall to the ground. The fact that referees don’t always detect this behaviour shouldn’t be criticised.
Robben has admitted that he dived in the Holland-Mexico match and there have been other incidents where he has over reacted or attempted to create a foul by simulating a fall out of a tackle. And he is not alone. Surely FIFA and other organisations must start helping referees deal with issues related to player behaviour. If this is to be a feature of the game, the best way to tackle it should be explored, whether it is retrospective punishment, additional technology or something else.
Referees have demonstrated some excellent performances during the World Cup. There have been contentious incidents and errors but this is football, these incidents are part of the game. The World Cup has further highlighted that it is very challenging to train referees to deal with players from different countries. It has also become more apparent that referees require greater support and assistance to deal with issues such as player behaviour.
Bringing together referees from all over the world is a difficult task. Differences in style and performance are accentuated in the melting pot of a tournament like the World Cup. The danger is that we forget the positives and accentuate the problems. Hopefully our memory of Brazil 2014 will be different.